In recent weeks, I happened across two separate articles about The Prestige - both of which seemed to have been written under the assumption that a critical plot point happened a particular way. My beef - that's not how I've seen the movie at all. When I took to Twitter to clarify that my interpretation was right, I found plenty of people who agreed with me, but a surprising amount of people who clung to an alternate interpretation. There was also one guy who felt I'd blown his mind by making him examine the film a different way.
The point of contention: The magician played by Hugh Jackman has paid Nicola Tesla to create a device that will transport him from one place to another, making it the signature act of his stage show. The first few times Jackman's character tests the machine, he's frustrated that his test subjects - top hats - go nowhere. At least that's how it appears until after several attempts he goes outside and some 30 yards away, there are a pile of hats. Thus, it's not a transporter, it's a duplicator which sends the duplicate some distance away.
This is reinforced later when Jackman tests the machine on himself, only to have a duplicate appear, which he promptly shoots dead. After that, Jackman figures out how to use this in his show. As the machine is activated, a trap door is also triggered beneath it, which leads to a water tank wherein the person standing on the platform drowns. Thus, when Jackman steps into the machine the trick ends with one Jackman materializing at the other end of the theatre, while the other one falls to his death - every night.
Here's my assertion - the duplicate is the one who materializes at the back of the theater. Thus, the Jackman who finishes the trick is NOT the same Jackman who steps into the machine. The Jackman who steps into the machine dies every night. However, since the clone carries all the memories of the original, he never experiences that death and thus, would regard himself as the "real" Hugh Jackman. But he's a clone several times over. The original Jackman is long dead, having given his life in service to the greatest magic trick he'd ever accomplish.
Other people seem convinced that the duplicate is the one who ends up in the water tank every night. That Jackman is merely murdering his duplicates again and again. For this to be accurate, the machine would have to transport the original Jackman, while leaving behind a duplicate in his exact position and also accomplish that so seamlessly that the original article appears not to vanish - not even for a second.
That's hard for me to believe. (It also means that the "real" Jackman dies unceremoniously when his first clone shoots him as described above.) It feels more convoluted when the simpler solution is that the original
stays where he is and the duplicate is projected elsewhere. I'll concede that the film doesn't make explicit how the machine works. We know what Jackman believes to be the truth, but that's not the same thing as being certain he's right. I also think it's no accident that the film leaves open my interpretation of events.
What strengthens my conviction in my interpretation is that it simply makes for a more resonant story. Jackman killing his clones again and again is little more than a shocking plot twist, but it doesn't resonate. But a man who's essentially committing suicide night-after-night in service to his art? That's potent and dramatic, especially if he doesn't even recognize the full weight of that. After all, the Jackman who takes the bow has the memories of stepping into the machine and ending up at the rear of the theatre. From his point of view he's immortal.
But in practice, his life only lasts as long as the time in between shows. Tell me that's not a better ending.
Even better - John Gary pointed out to me that something I failed to appreciate. Early in the film, Jackman's wife dies when a trick goes wrong. More to the point, she drowns during a failed water escape.
She drowns. How does Jackman commit suicide every night? What method does he choose to snuff out the inconvenient "extra" Jackman?
He drowns him. Every night, Jackman steps on stage and takes his own life in the same way his wife tragically lost hers. It's like a penance he cannot ever fully pay.
All of this galvanizes my resolve that my interpretation is most likely the "correct" one. The ambiguity is there so that we can discover it for ourselves rather than have it pounded into our heads directly.
That said, there are people who cling to their alternate interpretations rather firmly. So for today's talkback, I thought I'd solicit the audience about instances where they came away from a film with one firm interpretation, only to encounter someone who had a completely different understanding of the story.